The City of White Rock is issuing an invitation to Surrey and the Semiahmoo First Nation to hold a joint ‘citizens forum’ on rail-route relocation, following a meeting with federal officials that Mayor Wayne Baldwin termed “a huge disappointment.”
Baldwin acknowledged last week that the idea behind the proposed event – which came out of the Intergovernmental and First Nations Committee meeting on July 23 – is to jump-start the movement for relocating the BNSF’s waterfront route at a grass-roots level.
The recommendations from the committee, moved by Coun. Grant Meyer, also include forming a working group to organize the citizens forum in September or October – which would draw on the Citizens’ Railway Safety Committee.
They also call for city staff to seek advice from transportation consultant Mary Jane Bennett, or the Canadian Transportation Agency, on moving the rail line to an alignment along Highway 99, and also to initiate studies on relocation and realignment options with Surrey staff.
A June 28 meeting held in Vancouver – at the request of the federal Ministry of Transportation, and expedited by South Surrey-White Rock MP Gordie Hogg – brought together Baldwin, Surrey Coun. Judy Villeneuve, Semiahmoo First Nation councillor Joanne Charles, Surrey-White Rock MLA Tracy Redies and BNSF and Transport Canada officials, and was chaired by Pacific Region assistant deputy minister Robert Dick.
But Baldwin said that while relocation was discussed at the June meeting, what he felt was the overall emphasis on waterfront rail safety provided no assurance for him that relocation from the Semiahmoo Peninsula is being taken seriously on a federal level.
“It seemed like they were trying to distract us, to deter us from applying for grants (for studying relocation); to deter us from taking the whole thing further,” Baldwin told Peace Arch News.
And while action items emerging from the meeting included setting up “table-top exercises” – in which all three local governments would participate – to study strategies for dealing with a potential major emergency, Baldwin said he considered the project “a bit of a sop.”
“To do joint exercises and have an emergency review because we could have a derailment – well, thanks a lot, we’re already doing that,” Baldwin said.
He noted that, in suggesting such action, the federal ministry is clearly acknowledging the likelihood of a derailment – one of the compelling reasons for exploring relocation.
“It either makes sense or it doesn’t make sense – let’s get going on this,” Baldwin said.
“It’s very frustrating, after so many years of going through this. It seems like they’re dragging their heels.”
Baldwin and then-Surrey mayor Dianne Watts launched the current rail-relocation impetus with a public forum on Nov. 26, 2013.
Baldwin this week added that the status of what he understood to be a federal commitment to cost-share a study of relocation (with the provincial government, Surrey and White Rock) also seems to be in question.
But Hogg said Monday he believes that Baldwin is in error that such a commitment had been made at the time the rail-relocation issue was being pursued by Watts – when she became South Surrey-White Rock MP for half a term – and Fleetwood-Port Kells MP Ken Hardie.
“I was surprised when he mentioned it in his state-of-the-city address,” Hogg said.
“It was at a time when I wasn’t in the (MP’s) office, but when I followed it up subsequently with the Ministry of Transportation, there was no commitment made.”
Hogg noted that the June 28 meeting had focused on immediate and short-term safety goals and also the long-term goal of relocation.
He added it was the first time representatives of all governments and organizations involved were at the same table discussing the issues.
“That hasn’t happened to this point – I feel it was a very positive step forward.”
Hogg said that he and Redies have just sent a letter to provincial Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Claire Trevena, promoting the idea of relocation as part of the development of a high-speed Pacific Northwest rail link, currently under discussion between the province and U.S. authorities.